Lisa Sturtridge, theatre artist (1955-2011)

From the remarks I gave at the beginning of “A Celebration of the Art of Lisa Sturtridge” at St. Clair County Community College on Friday, October 28, 2011:

Our friend Lisa Sturtridge left us three weeks ago, but the “new normal” is taking a lot longer to get used to. I shared an office with Lisa for three years, but all of us shared the theatre, the classrooms, the hallways and the world with Lisa for much longer, 56 years in fact. When Lisa died on October 10th, she left behind hundreds of students she’d connected to over her years of teaching; many actors who understand that costuming and makeup is more than just clothes you put on and faces you paint on; many dozens of close friends and family all around the country, who shared one of her many passions: theatre (of course), photography, sports, 80’s hair bands, Broadway musicals, literature, and much more.

During our hours in our spacious luxury office suite, Lisa shared with me her many interests. I was never quite sure what music or talk program might be streaming over her internet connection. It was rarely the same thing twice… with the exception of listening to 97.1 The Ticket so she could mumble about the people who called in to the sports talk shows. She didn’t think much of them, but enjoyed listening to the hosts, another thing we agreed on.

I met Lisa in November of 2008, right after I was asked to direct my first show at SC4, “Christmas Belles,” after my predecessor, Rich Goteri, got an acting gig in L.A. and was unable to do that show. While I’d worked with volunteer costume people in community theatre, I didn’t know what to expect from Lisa as a professional costumer. I’m sure I’m not giving away any secrets when I tell you that artists, including theatre directors, often have very strong opinions about their work. I’m not any different, but I found Lisa to be an open-minded, enthusiastic collaborator whose primary concern was the overall quality of the production. To that end, she was vital to letting me know how things worked at SC4, and considering we only had four weeks to put the whole show together, I literally could not have done Christmas Belles without her.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to continue to direct shows at SC4, and regardless of the style and timeframe of the play, Lisa was always ready to discuss and work together to create a visual sense for each character. She was particularly excited about the play we just completed, Sam Shepard’s Fool For Love. She had done the costume design for the production but was unable to finish the collection of costume items before her death. The cast and I pulled together items from their own wardrobes – plus a whirlwind dress shopping excursion at Macy’s – and I think Lisa would have been pleased with how close to her original vision we ended up with on stage. The hallmark of good teaching is when your students can do things on their own, and clearly Lisa taught us – and I include myself in that list of students – taught us well.

Lisa Sturtridge did a lot of things in her life. She was a Sanilac County kid who went on to Michigan State to get a bachelor’s degree in technical theatre, with a concentration in lighting design; later she completed her master’s in costume design and dramatic literature at Emerson College in Boston. She worked with summer stock theatre companies for many summers during these years around the U.S. Incidentally, the music we played at the start, “Good Times Roll,” is by a band Lisa not only liked, but she also knew personally. When she was in Boston, she worked for a time at the Barnes & Noble store on Harvard Square, where students and professors from Harvard and MIT, along with many other poets, musicians, actors and artists would hang out. Among the people Lisa met working there were Benjamin Orr of The Cars and Tom Scholz of the band Boston. Another musical guilty pleasure of Lisa’s was 80’s hair bands. She surprised me one day by not only telling me that the musical Rock Of Ages was one of her favorites, but by then putting the album on and singing along heartily.

Her interest in photography brought her back to school at SC4 a decade ago, and she worked with Ralph Polovich as both a student and a darkroom assistant until the opportunity came along to use her costuming skills again beginning in 2004. She also began teaching Introduction to Theatre and Fundamentals of Stage Makeup. Over the past seven-plus years, Lisa touched many students’ lives as a teacher, a mentor and a friend. Because she hadn’t always had the easiest life herself, Lisa was particularly sensitive to students who had special life needs: economic challenges, academic or psychological difficulties, those who found themselves homeless or otherwise in need. Several times in the three years I knew Lisa, I saw her go out of her way to work with a student – and they didn’t have to be in one of her classes, either – and help them with proofreading a paper, borrowing a coat, or connecting with a social service agency. Students were her reason for being, and she was never happier than when she was just talking and sharing with a student in her office or in the costume shop.

It’s strange to think that Lisa won’t be walking through the door to our office again. While we didn’t agree on everything… and when you get tossed, more or less randomly, into an office to spend dozens of hours every week together, who does? Lisa and I shared a passion for the power of the art of theatre. All other minor differences were dwarfed by that common belief. Lisa was a colleague, a collaborator, an artist, and ultimately, my friend. I will miss her.

We all have different beliefs, and we take different comfort from them. Today’s event isn’t really a memorial service, as such, yet the mere act of holding this celebration of Lisa’s art is a reminder that when we affect someone, when we make their life better, when we make them laugh, or cry, or learn, or grow, we live in that person’s memory. Lisa affected so many people, and because of that, she will never be forgotten and lives on forever.

To close our program, I’d like to ask all of you to participate again. Lisa was a very affectionate person. She gave and received hugs enthusiastically. So now, I’d like to invite any of you that were affected by Lisa, who learned from Lisa, who counted Lisa as a friend, to join me on stage. Let’s hug each other one more time in the memory of our friend, Lisa Sturtridge.

Author: Tom Kephart

Actor, director, writer. Social media guy. Higher ed drone. Sings for beer in karaoke bars.